In 2014, the Navy Office of Legislative Affairs opened the Navy Legislative Fellows (LEGIS) program to enlisted applicants. Chief Legalman Ronald Ratliff, a native of Elizabethton, Tenn., was selected as the first enlisted Navy legislative fellow to work on Capitol Hill. The following year, Chief Legalman Kevin Jaress, native of Tempe, Ariz., was selected as the second enlisted Navy legislative fellow.
By Chief Legalman Ronald Ratliff
Growing up in Elizabethton, Tenn., I never imagined that I’d find myself sitting next to the Secretary of Defense, being on the House floor during a debate, or standing arm’s length from House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and House Speaker John Boehner.
I was attached to Walter Reed Bethesda when I heard the Navy was looking for enlisted applicants for the LEGIS program. I talked it over with my boss, Lt. Cmdr. Tamara O’Neil, and her reaction and response that encouraged me to apply. She always had this confidence in me that sometimes I didn’t feel myself. So when I saw how excited she was, I felt that maybe I had a shot. I made a few phone calls to see what the position was about. After reading more about the program, I was motivated to apply.
The package was very detailed and required full length photographs, endorsements from my chain of command, copies of evaluations, and a personal statement writing sample, among other things. Once I submitted the application in February, I was asked for an interview in May. Six senior naval officers and civilian equivalents asked me questions to assess my personality and how well I’d work with others. The selection process was nerve-wracking, but when you’re being ranked against others for a position that you want, it’s always stressful. I had no prior political experience and never considered myself interested in politics, but it seemed to actually work to my advantage. My training and education all related to being a paralegal in the Navy. The selection was based on personality and work ethic.
After the interview, I met with the MCPON [Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy]. He told me his expectations and asked me questions about myself. In no uncertain terms, he said the success of the program rested on my shoulders. I could leave a legacy for others, or I could destroy the program for the entire Navy and ruin my reputation. No stress. I wasn’t told how many people actually applied for the program, but I was told that three were selected for follow on interviews with OLA and the MCPON. After that, it was a waiting game until they made their decision. I found out I was selected in June 2014 and I was floored.
I completed three weeks of indoctrination and three weeks of a crash course from the Georgetown Government Affairs Institute. The class was a joint learning environment. There were 16 Navy fellows and about the same Marine Corps fellows who attended the last portion of the training. We didn’t train with the Air Force or Army. The Air Force trains for about six months for the fellowship, whereas the Army actually goes to college for a year to study Legislative Affairs and graduate with their Master’s in Professional Studies.
Being chosen for this position was the most incredible thing that has happened to me in my career. It offered me an opportunity, which until now, no enlisted member had been offered. I felt very humbled and appreciative that I was given the chance to represent the enlisted force in such an incredibly visible way. I hope that this encourages other Sailors to pursue their dreams, no matter how big or small.
The LEGIS fellow program places servicemembers in a congressional office for a member actively serving on the House or Senate Armed Services Committee. I worked in the office Congresswoman Susan Davis of San Diego’s 53rd District. I worked directly for the military legislative assistant (MLA) who has worked on Capitol Hill for more than 10 years. My responsibilities ranged from preparing defense related briefs and questions for posture hearings, taking constituent meetings, drafting speeches, monitoring social media outlets and preparing statements for release, researching legislation and drafting new legislation for the House floor, and I prepared statements for the congressional record.
The office MLA taught me everything that wasn’t covered in my technical training. Mostly, she taught me the importance of the Congresswoman’s position in Congress as it relates to constituents. Regardless of what the meeting was for, the office staff never turned down a meeting. It was vital to the success of the office that the staff heard from every constituent that wanted to discuss a topic and gain their perspective. Of course, I was only involved in the discussions with constituents who wanted to talk about defense issues. However, I learned there were other portfolios and other office personnel met with constituents to discuss education, jobs, economy in the district, and even water issues.
Besides normal office administrative duties, I was asked to take over the LGBT portfolio. I was responsible for ensuring the Congresswoman was aware of all gay, lesbian and transgender issues that came up involving her district or the military. For example, on the Transgender Day of Remembrance, I wrote a speech that was included in the Congressional Record. A LEGIS fellow has never had their own portfolio in Congresswoman Davis’ office. She was (and still is) an avid supporter of the gay and lesbian population, so having this portfolio was quite a privilege.
y main objective was to support the defense portfolio in the office, which included preparation for hearings and development of questions for the panel that were relevant to current defense issues. I would attend hearings and often set-up meetings for individuals at the hearings to provide more detailed information. Members on the dais are only given five minutes to ask questions and to hear the answers. On subjects that are more complex, the member often likes to have a follow up session to garner more information. Often times, I was asked to staff meetings with senior members of the military. I’ve personally met with Commander, Navy Installations Command; Chief of Naval Personnel; and other Chief of Naval Operations deputies.
The people that I was privileged enough to work with are the epitome of what it means to be an American. On a macro level, they are focused on everything. They aren’t just focused on defense, foreign relations or education. They want us to live in a better society and every single decision they make every single day is to reach that goal. The people who work there, their staff and support personnel, are some of the hardest working people I’ve ever met and care deeply about this country.
I am honored to have worked there and I’d give anything to go back.
By Chief Legalman Kevin Jaress
In October 2015, I began my LEGIS assignment in the office of Congressman Seth Moulton, 6th Congressional District of Massachusetts. Congressman Moulton is a Marine veteran who appreciates the value of having the senior enlisted perspective on important legislative issues affecting the Department of Defense. Additionally, my experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, and ships at sea provide the congressman with relevant insight into the challenges the deployed servicemember currently faces.
My duties for Congressman Moulton are drafting defense related legislation; preparing him for hearings, meetings, and briefings; advising him on National Security issues; answering constituent inquiries; coordinating with the House Armed Services Committee; and traveling to the 6th district of Massachusetts.
The best part of my job is being able to work closely with an acting member of Congress and having the opportunity to contribute to the legislative process. Additionally, being closely involved in major House Armed Services Committee and Subcommittee hearings allow me incredible access to congressional discussions with the Secretary of Defense, the Chief of Naval Operations, and various combatant commanders.
Working on a Congressman’s staff is a very unique opportunity and an experience that will definitely stay with me for the rest of my life. Additionally, as a chief petty officer, I am able to give the Navy’s enlisted community a voice on Capitol Hill.